AUSTRALIAN HISTORY - ALFRED DEAKIN
Book Review, February/March 1993,
Alfred Deakin became
prime minister of Australia three times between 1903 and 1910.
“Deakinite” has become a political category to describe a species of
small-l liberalism. No other Australian political leader has bequeathed
his name to a set of values and practices.
Those ideas are not as
popular as they have been. Deakin led the campaign against high-handed
direction of Imperial affairs by London. Which of our post-1941 prime
ministers has stood up to Washington with similar determination or wit?
For example, at the Colonial Conference held in London in 1887, Deakin
listened to the Foreign Secretary explain that France had not honoured
its treaty concerning the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). This admission
prompted Deakin to observe that Australasians might wish “that the
evenness of political life in England which sacrificed their interests
might be displaced by a chaos which should preserve them.”
Deakin refused all
imperial honours except a Privy Councillorship, unlike his confreres
Barton, who chased after higher orders of knighthood, and Forrest who
ended with the earldom of Bunbury.
In promoting the public
good and spurning baubles, Deakin was in pursuit of a greater prize than
fellow humans could bestow. He sought unity with the spirit of the
universe. None of the existing systems of faith satisfied him so that he
spent decades attempting a personal synthesis.
Gabay’s is the third
book-length study of Deakin, following Walter Murdoch’s sketch in 1923
and J A La Nauze’s two volumes in 1965. One mark of the new depth to
Australian studies is the appearance of multiple books dealing with the
same subject, as we have seen around Menzies, although there we still
await the definitive life.
When La Nazue was
writing his life of Deakin, he would muse how much longer it took to
write a biography than a political history because the biographer had to
get to know his subject. La Nauze perhaps came to know more about the
private Deakin than he considered appropriate to share with his readers.
There were topics, especially in the early 1960s, on which a chap did
Gabay is concerned with
the spirit more than with the flesh. The title of one of his chapters is
“Out of the Body” and could be taken as a motif for authorial
intentions. From La Nauze, and now Gabay we glimpse elements in
Deakin’s personality – his girlishness, the school nickname
“Dolly”, the atmosphere of home life dominated by competing women.
Judy Brett’s study of
Menzies has raised the question of how to relate the inner life with the
public stance. One response is to spurn any attempt to link the
personality with the political outlook. Faced with the impossible task
of interpreting the wellsprings of human behaviour from fragmentary
evidence, that no-start can be very tempting. But it does not convince
as a precept. A moment’s reflection on our own lives reminds us that
there are links between the private and public domains. Although such
connections cannot be explicated with ease, to pretend that they do not
exist - or are without influence - is to look upon human beings as
Deakin’s case is
different because he left so much evidence – millions upon millions of
words – discussing some areas of his inner life. So far as we know
from those who have studied these materials, Deakin did not write about
his sexual desires or practices, or indeed about his emotional life in
the sense associated with love. Nonetheless, an astute reader might
bring those concerns to the surface from within his draft books and
lectures on religious and moral questions.
For example, Gabay
mentions that Deakin woke most days between 4 and 5 am. For anyone who
does not go to sleep with the chooks, to wake up at that hour can be a
sign of nervous depression. Another writer will take up the theme of
Deakin’s “highly strung personality” and contemplate its origins
as well as its effects.
Whereas La Nauze set
aside Deakin’s Spiritualism when discussing his politics. Gabay
succeeds in integrating them. La Nauze considered Deakin’s long
fascination with the Eighteenth-century Swedish mystic Emanuel
Swedenborg to be “more inexplicable” than his other intellectual
pursuits. Gabay’s own involvement with that mystical system has
alerted him to Deakin’s moral motivations without blinding him to the
practical politics to which his subject devoted his working life.
Readers wil gain as sure an introduction to political impulses from
Gabay as from La Nauze.
Throughout the 1890s,
Deakin did not chase public office. Was this because he preferred to
promote the Federal cause? Or because he was ashamed of his connections
with the land-boomers of the previous decade? Or because of his concern
with the inner life? That listing of possibilities might once have
served as an examination question but its splitting of motivations into
sharp alternatives is a poor start to any analysis of personality or
Deakin’s private writings as evidence of a persistent desire to
abandon politics for the pulpit. From 1993, when it is difficult to
believe politicians when they tell us the time of day, an effort of
empathy is essential to accept that so astute a parliamentary manager as
“Affable Alfred” was as concerned with the condition of his soul and
that of the nation as he was to balance the factions within his shifting
coalitions. Yet that seems the case.
No less difficult to
appreciate in this era of government by the culturally illiterate is the
breadth of Deakin’s reading and the expanse of his writing. For
instance, Deakin was versed in French literature and an admirer of
Mohamed. In 1889-90, he wrote a 600-page manuscript about Swedenborg,
one of several such studies in addition to a spiritual journal and
masses of personal prayers.
Gabay writes clearly
even when tracking Deakin deep into the swamps of mysticism. His
200-page book is documented and indexed but carries no bibliography.
Gabay has done more than explore neglected aspects of Deakin’s
outlook. He has revealed how intellectual and political history might be
integrated in ways that promise rewards from further investigation of
the personal and public domains.